By Drew Dietrich
On Oct. 3, 1986, my father-in-law, Roger Hill died in horrific car crash. A reckless driver pushed him head on into a truck in the other lane.
By the grace of God, the EMTs on the scene brought him back to life, My only conclusion is, someone whispered in his ear and told him he just wasn't done playing his guitar.
This is his story.
Born with a guitar in his hand, Roger started his professional career in 1958 at the age of 17 playing with the hit group, the Tune Rockers (Remember the Top 40 hit, "Green Mosquito?"). In 1963, he formed Roger Hill and the Blue Country Playboys and for the next 23 years, they delighted country music fans all over Western New York with a powerful, old-fashioned style of country music. Not the pop stuff you hear today, these guys and gals used fiddles, bass and steel guitars – "country" country music. Let us add in he was a contest winner to the Grand Ole Opry and a couple of years stint at WXRL as a radio host and Roger's life was eat, sleep and breathe playing his Gibson or Les Paul and yodeling out country tunes.
After the accident, that all changed.
With multiple surgeries on his feet and hands, steel plates in his face that set off airport alarms, Roger now could only focus on trying to get his life back to some kind of normal, one doctor even said he may not walk again.
I'll interject here, "Wait doc, have you met him?"
Over the years his determination prevailed. While he was in a therapy, he received his college degree (by the way, he started by getting his GED). He married my mother-in-law, Dawn, and became Grandpa and Poppa to my sons and his growing cadre of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. After a while, his hands became stronger so he blew the dust off of his guitar and slowly started to try to capture that magic that comes from music.
Only a fellow musician can understand the power and longing that comes from connecting with and performing in front of an audience. The guitar and that yodel would come out at family gatherings and a couple of old friends from the business would occasionally let him sit in on gigs for a few songs.
A couple of more hand surgeries resulted in his dexterity coming back and lots of vocal practice made his voice grow even stronger. The urge to return to the spotlight grew stronger, too. With a gentle push of encouragement from his wife, Dawn, he took a chance at the age of 67 and started reaching out to venues to play.
A local nursing home turned out as an ideal starting place and it wound up being a success. Outfitted with a Fender Passport system and a Gibson acoustical electric guitar plus a vocal harmonizer, he became a one man band. He played old tunes by Hank Williams, Kenny Rogers, Johnny Cash and others, intermixed with interesting histories of these icons. Throw a couple of corny jokes into the routine and Roger slowly rejuvenated his career. Between word of mouth and persistent salesmanship my father-in-law's new career has taken off. There were more than 250 stops in the last two years alone and he's now at the age of 76, not bad.
I'm sure thousands of people today are grateful God wanted him to keep on playing. So, if you're visiting a loved one somewhere in Western New York and you hear someone yodeling in the background, take a moment and stop in, Roger/Poppa/Grandpa would love to see you.
Drew Dietrich is always amazed by the spirit of people who can turn tragedy into triumph.